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Stunning, Sensual Illustrations for a Rare 1913 Edition of Walt Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’ by English Artist Margaret C. Cook

“Thoughts, silent thoughts, of Time and Space and Death…”

Stunning, Sensual Illustrations for a Rare 1913 Edition of Walt Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’ by English Artist Margaret C. Cook

When thirty-six-year-old Walt Whitman self-published Leaves of Grass in the summer of 1855, having poured the whole of his being into this unusual and daring labor of love, it fell upon unreceptive and downright hostile ears — a rejection that devastated the young poet. But over the coming decades, largely thanks to Emerson’s extraordinary letter of endorsement and encouragement, it became one of the most beloved books in America — a proto-viral masterpiece that forever changed the face and spirit of literature, bold and fresh and replete with “incomparable things said incomparably,” creaturely yet cosmic, bridging the earthly and the eternal yet larger than both.

Twenty-one years after Whitman’s death, Everyman’s Library series creator J.M. Dent published what remains the most beautiful edition of the Whitman classic — a large, lavish tome bound in green cloth, with the title emblazoned in gilt. But the crowning curio of this rare, spectacular 1913 edition — a surviving copy of which I was fortunate to acquire at the New York Antiquarian Book Fair — are twenty-four color plates by the English artist Margaret C. Cook.

“Two fishes swimming in the sea not more lawless than we”

Cook’s stunning illustrations, shockingly sensual against the backdrop of Puritanism against which Whitman staged his rebellion in verse, bear something of William Blake — particularly his engravings for Paradise Lost; something of Maurice Sendak (who was, of course, shaped by Blake) — particularly his forgotten sensual illustrations for Pierre by Whitman’s contemporary Herman Melville.

“You sea!… I behold… your crooked inviting fingers…,
I am integral with you, I too am of one phase and of all phase”
“We found our own, O my Soul, in the calm and cool of the daybreak”
“Whose happiest days were far and away through fields, … he and another wandering”
“How calm, how solemn it grows to ascend the atmosphere of lovers”
“Living beings, identities now doubtless near us in the air that we know not of”

Radiating from Cook’s drawings is Whitman’s insurgent insistence, as a queer man and a lover of all life, that romantic and erotic love transcends the tight parameters of the heteronormative — that the heart, too, contains multitudes.

“I will sing the song of companionship”
“The sun and stars that float in the open air,
The apple-shaped earth and we upon it, surely the drift of them is something grand,
I do not know what it is except that it is grand, and that it is happiness”

Most spectacular are Cook’s nocturnal scenes, fusing the sultry with the celestial — a consonant complement to Whitman’s lifelong fascination with astronomy, which would prompt him to write in Specimen Days a quarter century later:

To soothe and spiritualize, and, as far as may be, solve the mysteries of death and genius, consider them under the stars at midnight.

“Thoughts, silent thoughts, of Time and Space and Death”
“Give me nights perfectly quiet… and I looking up at the stars”
“The tender and growing night”
“The night follows along, with millions of suns, and sleep, and restoring darkness”
“We have voided all but freedom and all but our own joy”
“I see… great cloud-masses…
With at times half-dimm’d sadden’d far-off star”

I have digitized and restored Cook’s striking illustrations, and made them available as art prints, all proceeds from which will help support The Universe in Verse.

“The sleepers are very beautiful as they lie unclothed,
They flow hand in hand over the whole earth from East to West”
“I will confront these shows of the day and night;
I will know if I am to be less than they,
I will see if I am not as majestic as they”
“They are calm, clear, well possess’d of themselves”
“I see my soul reflected in Nature,
As I see through a mist,
One with inexpressible completeness, sanity, beauty,
See the bent head and arms folded over the breast, the Female I see”
“The soul has that measureless pride which revolts from every lesson but its own”
“I too with my soul and body,
We, a curious trio, wandering on our way,
Through these shores amid the shadows, with the apparitions pressing”
“I musing late in the autumn day”
“The merriment of the two babes that crawl over the grass in the sun, the mother never turning her vigilant eyes from them”
“The yellow half-moon enlarged, sagging down, drooping, the face of the sea almost touching,
The boy ecstatic”
“I have taken my stand on the basest of peninsulas and on the high embedded rocks, to cry thence:
‘Salut au monde!'”

For other stunning illustrations from special editions of literary classics, devour Ralph Steadman’s illustrations for Orwell’s Animal Farm, Aubrey Beardsley’s gender-defying illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s Salome, Harry Clarke’s haunting illustrations for Goethe’s Faust, and Salvador Dalí’s paintings for Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and the essays of Montaigne.

Published April 11, 2018




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